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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, October 2, 2023

Group hopes to educate students about 1969 Lewis Hall protest

The Africana Center celebrated its 40th anniversary last month, but the event that prompted its inception was not memorialized with a gala or anything of the sort. In fact, Tufts did not officially recognize it at all.

On Nov. 6, 1969, members of Tufts' then−recently founded Afro−American Society, along with over 200 other students from Boston−area colleges, staged a work stoppage on the construction site that was to become Lewis Hall. In a letter sent to the Tufts administration, the Afro−American Society decried "alleged discriminatory hiring practices" by Volpe Construction, the company contracted to build the dorm.

Assistant Professor of History Kris Manjapra has formed a group to memorialize the protest and both its local and national effects. As faculty−in−residence in Lewis Hall, Manjapra worked with the Office for Residential Life and Learning (ResLife) to stimulate intellectual discourse. "[We want to] bring more learning and academic discussion into residential life," he said.

When Manjapra's talks with ResLife Director Yolanda King eventually morphed into a project looking at Tufts' involvement in the civil rights period, Professor of History Daniel Mulholland suggested that the project focus on the events on campus in 1969. Mulholland came to Tufts as an assistant professor in 1967, and as a Tufts faculty member was integral in supporting the protesters; he spoke at a counter−commencement, which a vast majority of graduating seniors held while boycotting the official university Commencement in 1970.

The Tufts 1969 project is happening in multiple phases — there is a group working in the university archives with primary sources documenting the event. Another group is working on the oral history by conducting interviews with students, administrators and faculty who were at Tufts in 1969, which will eventually end up as part of a documentary. Yet another group is working on a Web site, which will be linked either through the Africana Center or the Tufts Web site. To help the project come together, each group is made up of graduate and undergraduate students and headed by a graduate history student.

"This is really about a kind of student activism," Manjapra said, "developing a historical consciousness as part of mobilizing a social consciousness. Studying that history really can create a real nexus for helping us today think about what it means to be an activist."

Much of the discussion in the first few meetings of the project addressed the reason that there was not an official university response to this anniversary. Manjapra said that the university wasn't trying to be malicious by not commemorating the anniversary, but instead attributed it to "a lack of institutional memory."

"But we need to ask the question, Why has the tradition of activism that Tufts was known for, why has that profile not made its way into the fabric of our university?" he said. "It's an important thing not to lose sight of — it's easy to forget. We need to work hard to preserve these important things; it's about tradition, it's about legacy."

Sophomore Gabrielle Horton, the political chair for the Pan−African Alliance, points to the university's response in 1969, or lack thereof, to explain its response now.

Tufts didn't give any immediate official response to the incident in 1969. The university did not come out officially to support the students, nor did it condemn their actions. "That hasn't changed," Horton said. "I think the [Tufts 1969] project is very important; it gives you a sense of history. You're not just here for your four years; you have a history here.

"I feel the administration hasn't done its full part," Horton said. "There's no black studies program or department, and no one's going to the dean's office demanding this or to the provost's office demanding that — there's not one person at fault. I think the students should fight for it, but a university that prides itself on diversity and global citizenship isn't fighting for it either."

The Tufts administration bowed to pressure to establish an Africana Center in the wake of the protest, but when students in 1970 asked for a black studies department, they were told to wait.

"Silence is the space of power's execution," Ian Greaves, a graduate student who is heading the oral history aspect of the project, said.

"When did the university say ‘Alright, enough, here's a center' and when the students asked, ‘Where's our department?' and the university said, ‘You've got a center,' when and why did they decide that was enough?" Greaves said.

"I find it very telling and weird that there's not a black studies program," Horton said. "American studies is a program, not a department, and women's studies is a program."

While the project gives black students a sense of their place in Tufts history, it also shows the place that student activism holds on this campus.

"The onus on us is to speak truth to power," Professor of History Peniel Joseph said last Tuesday at the Tufts 1969 Teach−In, an organizational meeting for the 1969 project appropriately held in Lewis Hall. "We have to be willing to do things like civil disobedience. These students put themselves on the line, and they didn't know what was going to happen. This is not a call for mayhem, but this is a call for action," Joseph said.

Manjapra pointed to Mahatma Gandhi's teaching that "no" was a sacred word and the most important tool in fighting injustice, and that it "needs to be uttered sometimes," Manjapra said.

"Because there was no official moment of commemoration, this is not just about a commemoration," Manjapra said. "This is something much more active, much more present. It's about living more responsibly, living with more integrity. How do you live in these ways for other people? When do we go out on a limb for those people, when do we show solidarity, say your ‘no' is my ‘no' and we need to say ‘no' to this together? Are we able to show solidarity today; are we able to have a politics of solidarity? These are the questions that need to make us uncomfortable. We need to struggle with them.

"Everyday life is serious," Manjapra added. "The things we accept, the things we allow to happen, the things we resist. Things are only going to become more complicated."